Thursday, February 24, 2011

Detroit Schools: A Reflection of Racial Inequity and Injustice

Amina writes about cuts to Detroit Public Schools

Detroit’s Spiral
This week Detroit Public Schools announced that it would make major cuts to eliminate its enormous $327 million budget deficit. The proposal will close half of its schools, leaving marked overcrowding in the surviving half. The shortfall is in part because of the declining public school population. Over the last 10 years the public school population has declined by 50%. The students have gone and taken their government funding with them. There is no upside to this story. No hopeful conclusion. Schools for closure are now being selected.

A Reservoir of Racial Inequity
If you want to see the health of a community look at its schools. They are the reservoirs of our racial injustice and inequity. The two are inextricably connected. Understand this reality and what’s happening in Detroit Public Schools is awful, but not shocking. Let’s be clear. Detroit Public Schools serve a Black population (upwards of 95%!). If you want clarity about racial inequity in public schools, Detroit is a newly cleaned window. Peer through that window and Detroit gives an unobstructed view of how America treats Black children. It shows how little we value them, how expendable they are.

Super Flight
Let’s start with some of the broader forces of racial inequity at work in Detroit. Detroit is a lesson in extremes. Sure things happen everywhere, but they really explode in Detroit. White flight happened all over the nation. But in the case of Detroit, its white super flight. Since it’s peak number in 1950, Detroit has lost 50% of its population. In the 1950s the population of whites in Detroit hovered around 1.5 million, by 2000 it had declined to below 200,000. Ironically in that same time period the population of African Americans grew. That fleeing white population took their resources with them and the schools tell the tale.

The Plummet
More extremes. With the decline of the auto industry and movement of jobs overseas, the country’s old steel and motor towns have gone through an economic downturn. Well in Detroit it was a plummet, or more like a mammoth explosion. Detroit has an unemployment rate of 15.1, the highest rate among America’s 50 largest metropolitan cities. For Blacks in Detroit the unemployment rate hovers around 20.9% versus 13.8 % for whites!

Detroit’s Schools Tell The Tale
And these broader racial inequities are revealed in the schools. Yes, foremost we see this in the absolute disarray of the Detroit Public School system. The cavalier way they announce the plan to close half the schools. The way it’s accepted by the mainstream American audience. The story made national news, so we could show our shallow dismayed, and now it’s quietly gone away.

But we also see it in the schools themselves. In the 2009-10 school year Detroit Public Schools recommended 29,000 suspensions and expulsions, with over 700 of those being expulsions! This is in a district of 90,000 students! The dropout rate for black males is some 80%! You’ve gotta call that a push-out rate. Detroit Public Schools may be the definition the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sure we may be able to escape the ugliness of racial inequity in much of our daily lives; with our highway commutes, our gated communities and our Facebook pages. This may be partly why education has suffered from inattention. Because to look at these schools we are reminded that with all our “progress” our past is still very much our present when it comes to racial injustice. 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Republican Budget Butcher

Amina writes on the Republican education budget proposal.

Education Slashed
I can only imagine the cognitive dissonance needed to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans then turn around and recommend some $5 billion in cuts to education programs for some of our most underserved.  Little was spared in this budget bloodbath.  Headstart--cut by 1 billion, Even Start Family Literacy Program and a host of other literacy programs--eliminated, the Pell Grant slashed by $845 per-student grant, $180 million for math and science partnerships—eliminated. Those are just a few highlights. 

…and climate change is real
Republicans argue that they’ve looked at these programs carefully and made hard choices. Programs of little to questionable value were the worst hit. It’s amazing what they still consider questionable! Study after study show benefits to children from Head Start…oh but these guys are still arguing that climate change isn't real.  Literacy programs (which took a wholesale hit) have proven benefits. For families, these programs exponentially increase the chances a child is read to, they reduce recidivism rates for the incarcerated, they increase productivity in the workplace. Cuts to an already inadequate Pell Grant (particularly in light of rising tuition costs) are hard to swallow. It’s already difficult to be poor in higher education, this guarantees it will get harder.

Relative to President Obama
If Obama planned his budget in hopes of appearing reasonable next to the craziness of the Republican proposal, it almost works. Their complete disregard for students of color in low income communities place a nice red bow on the Obama proposal. But let’s not allow the absurd to make what’s less than adequate into good budget policy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

State Boards of Education Prove They Don't Know Much About History

Jack writes on Fordham's findings that State Boards of Education have lost touch with the past... and reality:

While teachers, parents, and even students often find themselves taking the blame for the nation's failings on the education front, the Fordham Institute released the findings today of a review that scolds state boards of education for their shortcomings. 

Targeted at evaluating History education standards in all fifty states, the Fordham analysis conducted by professional historians concluded that 28 states deserve a grade of 'D' or 'F' in the content of their K-12 history curricula. Only one state, South Carolina – with its critical analysis of its controversial past and its staunch emphasis on the histories of communities of color – received an 'A'. Notably, Illinois and Texas' history standards mustered 'D's', with the evaluators noting the bland disjointedness of the former and the politicized inaccuracies of the latter. Who knew Abe Lincoln fought at the Alamo?!

These standards, set by state boards of education, are the bread and butter of history instruction in K-12 education. While much attention has been given to student performance on standardized examinations and the quality of teaching that such results ostensibly demonstrate, Fordham's findings seriously call into question the design and accuracy of the very material being taught in schools.

With the help of a board of scientists, Fordham has also conducted an evaluation of Science standards in all fifty states with similarly disconcerting results. History and Science are particularly important for the critical thinking skills that they can cultivate and the objective knowledge about our society that they can cultivate. It seems that with the discussion heating up over the common core standards initiative, it's also essential to take a serious look a what those standards are and how they can be brought into step with reality.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Budget Valentine: More Bitter Than Sweet

Amina writes on President Obama’s budget proposal and what it means for students of color.

February 14, 2011

Well, President Obama’s Valentine budget seems pretty faithful to his program for K-12. If you were hoping for some transformation in education for students of color via this proposal, well, you got a clear V-Day message that he’s just not that into you.

More Racing
More Racing to the Top. Now we’re competing between districts, one district competing against its neighbor. Great. If you thought there were local rivalries in the past, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Forget football and basketball throwdowns, now we’ve got real dollars at stake; well resourced districts against poor ones. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on whether the state-based Race to the Top competition will create great outcomes for students. Yes, Duncan and Obama have already taken victory laps. Yet, we don’t know if the winning states can fulfill the promises they’ve made to get the dollars. And for the losers (the cash strapped and dumped), their grant writing promises may be forgotten, undone, ignored or tossed away like Valentines from an ex.

Bittersweet for Teachers
There is a touch of sweet in this budget. Money to recruit and train teachers. But there may be an icky cherry at the center of this sweet treat. A great deal is being accomplished through consolidating existing programs, not necessarily new money. Also, some proposals may be working in opposition to others; like recruiting and training new teachers versus turnaround schools. Under the turnaround model teaching in the most underserved and underperforming schools could be a hazard to your professional health. A new climate is being instituted. Show some results and fast, or you could find yourself a casualty of a turnaround firing. So with the new incentives we may get more teachers, yet its not clear that they will offer the longterm teaching commitment we need in our most underserved schools.

Parents Still Scorned
And for parents awaiting a budget Valentine to seriously fund their engagement in schools; well, call it a night, it’s a no show. Though we can find community on the fringes of this budget; adult literacy, charter school choice, etc. It’s not going to get parents trained, informed and empowered as full partners in determining how their schools are run.

A Shift
What’s unfortunate is how our expectations have shifted. We are in a warped world; where tax cuts for the rich have been extended while extensive budget cuts are on the table. In this twisted environment, you just want to breathe a sigh of relief that education for K-12 didn’t get placed on the chopping block. (The same can’t be said for higher ed). Meanwhile, this shift right may dull the sharp eye we need to understand and improve what actually is being funded. In this game the new radical right has won because real transformative conversations will never take place. We’ll have to save that Valentine wish for another year.

Friday, February 11, 2011

On Your Marks, Get Set, Reauthorize!

Jack writes on the first rumblings on Capitol Hill of a move toward ESEA reauthorization in 2011:

The House Education and Workforce Committee held its first hearing of the new year on ESEA reauthorization yesterday. Entitled "Education in the Nation: Examining the Challenges and Opportunities Facing America's Classrooms," the hearing featured expert testimony from former Arizona Superintendent and GOP policy consultant Lisa Graham Keegan, Indiana's Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett, Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute, and Dr.Ted Mitchell of the New Schools Venture Fund.

"Government is the Problem"
As noted in the Washington Post's Answer Sheet, these experts have a whopping nine years of teaching experience between them and generally pushed for a conservative approach to education reform. In particular, Mr. Coulson’s testimony centered on an argument that Federal spending on education has done virtually nothing to improve math and science test scores or close the achievement gap over the past fifty years. His data is interesting, but the conclusion that the Federal role in education should be axed comes off as quaint. 

Ms. Keegan and Dr. Mitchell forwarded a similar approach of just “getting out of the way” of local and state authorities. They both argued for more charter schools and greater local control. They also applauded the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top scramble for cash, as well as parent trigger laws. Finally, Dr. Bennett laid out a strategy for reform based on three ideas: 1) Identify and reward excellent teachers and principals, 2) Enforce school accountability but allow flexibility for low-performing schools, 3) Give families a “voice” in education through school choice and trigger laws.

No Silver Bullet
At the end of the day, that’s the picture of education reform under the new Republican House: less Federal “meddling” and more innovation through school choice and local control. Again, these things don’t sound particularly nefarious at first, but they conceal a deeper thesis that we can solve the problems of the public education system in this country by gradually dismantling it. 

I admit it, I’m skeptical of the push for more charter schools. I know it's not the cool thing to say right now, but I’m just not sure we have enough information yet to determine that a charterization of the American public education system is the silver bullet it's marketed to be. I also think that government, when operating transparently and concertedly, can do and has done some very important things in education. Red flags go up for me when I hear folks say, “Let’s just get government out of our way.” That usually means we’re going to deregulate and defund and let the market decide who gets shiny new schools and who gets the dregs. 

Curious Tensions
On that note, this was just the first of many hearings that will be taking place over the next few months. Steam does seem to be gathering for a 2011 reauthorization of ESEA, but it’s clear this will be the kind of “dialogue” we’ll be hearing on Capitol Hill. It’s also clear there’s some definite tension between the Republican and Democratic wings of the committee that might hamper the process. 

Finally, it’s worth noting that as in 1994, the Republicans have renamed the committee from “Education and Labor” to “Education and Workforce.” The L-word never sat well with the GOP for some reason. Also, check out the revamped committee website complete with an anti-Obama news feed (the Dems have kept their own separate website). It’s good for a chuckle if you’re into the whole partisan thing.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Integration, ending with a national whimper.

Amina writes on the re-segregation vote in Wake County, NC public schools:

Wake County, NC’s school board voted to end their integration scheme. Their income -based approach was targeted to keep students from low income households to below 40% in a school. Students were bused to achieve greater diversity.  Though the 40% mark was not always met, it’s been viewed as a success in increasing racial and income diversity.

It Spreads
Backtracking on integration is a trending upward. Raleigh, NC, Charlotte, NC, have also turned and the efforts continue. The funny thing is that proponents aren’t really arguing that Black and Brown children will fare better with re-segregation. Given outcomes for students of color in high poverty school – not even Republicans (who’ve tended to vote for re-segregation) can argue that with a straight face. In Raleigh, NC, where integration efforts were put to an end by a Republican school board, the chair said, “we’ve diluted the problem so we can ignore it.” Re-segregation was the solution. Yes, let’s isolate the most underserved. It’ll make us serve them better. Sure thing.

The basic message is we just don’t want to be bothered anymore. It’s unnecessary. It costs too much and we’re tired of it. The results will soon follow. In Charlotte, NC, after reversal of its integration efforts in 2002, has found concentrations of poor black students mounting.

So Old School
Integration. It sounds so old school. Like afro puffs and roller skates. As districts end concerted efforts for diversity, we see that old terms have present day value. In our post-race, post-racist, post-reality era, we’ve left the integration hen house unattended. With protests, sit-ins, boycotts, Supreme Court cases, and historic legislation; integration came in with a national bang. Well, it’s going out with a whimper. With residents protesting at school board meetings, and local NAACP chapters trying to get traction in the courts--but without national debate. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Education cuts in Texas would hurt special needs students, prompt legal action

Jack writes on the coming battle in Texas over the state education budget and considers the communities these cuts will most affect:

Over the past few days there’s been much rumbling in Texas about the prospect of extensive cuts to the Lone Star State’s education budget, adding some irony to Gov. Rick Perry's slogan, "Texas is Open for Business." Quintessentially conservative, the Texan approach of  slashing public services by 10 percent to address a $27 billion budget shortfall is being viewed as a model for other states similarly afraid to broach the issue of tax hikes. The true extent of these cuts and their consequences is now being seen in their effects on special needs students.

A (Much Needed) Lawsuit in the Making
Currently, the Texas Senate is considering legislation that would effectively freeze new enrollment at the state’s School for the Deaf and School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. What’s more is that legislation would also reduce the full-time staff on-call at both schools, which serve hundreds of students who were unable to receive adequate care in the wider public school system.

However, on Monday the senate’s education committee members were warned by special needs education experts that this tactic could cost the state millions more in the long-run through lawsuits. Thankfully, it seems that the Federal government’s Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is likely to prompt a flurry of lawsuits from rightly outraged parents of the special needs students Texas would hurt if these cuts are implemented.

Getting Organized Around the Law
It’s sad that states legislatures across the country find it more convenient to hack away at already meager education funding before having a heated but needed conversation about raising taxes to realistic levels (Texas famously doesn’t have a state income tax). However, it’s reassuring to know that parents are getting organized and willing to take action against cuts to essential educational services.

It’s also good to know that even if state legislators might loathe it, the Federal government can serve an effective and active role in making sure these budget cuts don’t hurt the communities that need stable resources. An organized national effort could counter this wave of budget cuts and there’s also plenty of good legal arguments to be made against any further cuts to resources for low-income students and students of color. We just need to get organized.

While existing Federal law could help stem the austerity tide, this sort of action also brings attention back to a discussion started last summer over making quality education a Constitutional right.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Trigger World: California's Trigger Law in Action

As I read Watanabe’s LA Times piece on Compton’s McKinley elementary trigger law saga, I felt like I was in some altered universe. The right pieces seem to be in place, but it all feels so wrong. We’ve got parents engaged in the process—great! A call for full fledged reform in a severely underserved school—awesome! But all is not right in Trigger World.

With the California trigger law we’ve gone from utterly ignoring parent voice (parents of color in particular) in public education to making each PTA a mini-state legislature. With 51% of the parent vote a failing school can be converted into a charter, shutdown, or 50% of staff fired.  Now that’s power! …But is it the right power and to whom has it really been granted?

Parent Revolution, the organizing body behind the Trigger Law and McKinley Elementary parents, is closely tied to the charter organization Green Dot. They receive some 80% of their funding from Green Dot. So, the parent revolution may be more like a charter invasion. Hmmm, with all this charter money behind them, I wonder which of the three trigger options parents will endorse? In Trigger World it looks like charter school companies may be the ones really holding the gun.

Which leads to the other issue. If we really believe in parent engagement and giving parents power; it seems hypocritical to give parents only three choices for reform. Who wants to see their neighborhood school closed, or to fire staff? Beginning a charter, the shiny new penny in everyone’s reform toolkits from Obama to the states; is the only halfway palatable option. It’s a Hobson’s choice, given to parents with the fewest resources and tools for making demands on the system.

The irony is that everyone may be right in this dysfunctional debate. If the McKinley trigger is successful and they get their charter, it may well be a better school than the status quo. After all, there are good charter schools. And people are watching this case. And districts are right that the trigger law is flawed. McKinley’s possible success doesn’t address the certain failure of charters in serving all children. Let’s also remember studies show charters to be little better than their traditional public school counterparts on average.

In the end, it’s a little insulting. Parents of color rarely get the limelight in public education. They deserve it! Their children are the least served. To finally “include” them—yet use their real distress to chase charter dreams instead of true education transformation is…unsettling. To pit their desperation to improve education for their own children against a broader need to insure thousands of other children aren’t lost in the charter fray is unconscionable. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Williams-Bolar Moment

Jack writes on what Kelley Williams-Bolar's experience says about education, place, and race in 2011:

Last week’s buzz over a mother who was jailed for sending her children to a safer, better school appears to have lost some steam in the media. In fact, yesterday’s piece in the Washington Post, attempted to deflate the story a little further by pointing out that this was no “Rosa Parks moment” for education. However, what happened to Kelley Williams-Bolar should continue to speak directly to an education reform movement that is increasingly supportive of privatizing schools and turning the funding process for low-income schools into a cut-throat, winner-take-all competition.

An Ohio court convicted Williams-Bolar of a double felony for falsifying her residency records so that her two daughters could attend school in the Copley-Fairlawn public school district between 2006 and 2008. The district demanded that Williams-Bolar pay over $30,000 in back tuition and ultimately prosecuted her after a district-hired private detective followed and filmed her picking up her children after school and driving them to her real residence in Akron.
Making Her an Example for Other Parents
Williams-Bolar served ten days in jail (reduced from a sentence of five years) and will be on probation for the next two years. Prosecutors in the case refused to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor and the judge in the case indicated that she hoped the sentence would make an example of Williams-Bolar and serve as a deterrent to other parents.

Lawyers for the Copley-Fairlawn school district earlier argued that because school quality is a function of adequate funding and, as funding is determined by local property taxes, Williams-Bolar had committed grand theft. This charge was ultimately dropped, but it demonstrates the intractable madness of a public school system funded by property tax dollars.

Further, one of the prosecutors in the case predictably argued that: “There are many single mothers and families in similar situations who want the best for their children who are not breaking the law." Translation: “The law’s the law because it’s the law.” Glad we cleared that up.

An Unjust Law in an Unjust System
Yes, Kelley Williams-Bolar broke the law, but this is an unjust law that upholds an unjust situation. Kelley Williams-Bolar broke the law in a state of a nation that tacitly accepts that even a basic quality education is a privilege that can be enjoyed by some and denied to others on the basis of their zip code or income or race. If you live in a nice, affluent suburb, the sky’s the limit for your kids’ education and we’ll prosecute anyone who tries to steal it from them. If you live elsewhere, well… let’s hope your district gets its act together in that next round of Race to the Top.

Kelley Williams-Bolar broke an unjust law to overcome an unjust situation and, in doing so, she did exactly the right thing. It’s sadly ironic that Williams-Bolar is herself en route to certification as a teacher. While this unjust and excessive conviction now jeopardizes that career for her, we can’t let her story become just another banal “teachable moment” that shakes heads and peppers Twitter feeds, only to be forgotten by the national media by week's end.

Instead, we must remember that any system that imprisons a mother for simply enrolling her child in a public school, whatever the circumstances, is fundamentally unjust. We must also remember what Henry David Thoreau wrote about institutionalized injustice in America over 150 years ago: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”